A lopsided whine about the state of American public schools, “The Cartel” is a lesson in dichotomous documaking: Effervescent and tedious, crusading and craven, it’s a prime example of that ubiquitous oxymoron: the agenda-driven “expose.” Comparisons to Michael Moore seem inevitable, and not entirely misguided, but the real role models for helmer Bob Bowdon are TV personalities like John Stossel, who take iron-clad conclusions and set out to prove them. Commercial prospects look slim for this April 16 release.
It’s impossible to argue with Bowdon’s basic premise that U.S. school systems are is in trouble. Dropout rates, especially in urban schools, are scandalous; students are warehoused; huge amounts of money are wasted; teachers’ unions are the Great White Whale of education reformers. But if Davis Guggenheim’s upcoming “Waiting for Superman” is the “Moby Dick” of education docs, “The Cartel” is the genre’s chest-thumping goldfish.
Bowdon, a veteran of local television in the New York metropolitan area, doesn’t stray beyond the state lines of New Jersey to make his case (his claim, at pic’s end, that “The Cartel” is a film of national scope is fatuous, since he doesn’t bother to go as far as, say, Connecticut). He also ignores the ramifications of the No Child Left Behind act (toxic Bush administration education policies are never mentioned). And while providing several New Jersey politicians a platform from which to pontificate about the state of their schools, he also gives a wide berth to questions surrounding campaign contributions, political influence and public financing of elections.
It’s much easier to use teachers and their unions as the whipping boys of a failing school system. And when Bowdon gets Joyce Powell on camera — Powell being the president of the movie’s bete noire, the New Jersey Educational Assn. — he delivers the really tough questions in voiceover, depriving Powell of a chance to answer them and the viewer of a chance to hear them answered. One can only conjecture that Bowdon, for all his touted experience as a journalist, approached the interview unprepared, or didn’t have the nerve to ask Powell the questions. She doesn’t seem that scary. Maybe he was afraid of the answers.
The lessons to be learned from “The Cartel,” with its boogeyman title and Bowdon’s supercilious narration, seem to be limited to filmmakers-cum-propagandists. Want some tips on appealing to a Tea Party mentality? Count the number of Mercedes-Benzes in a school parking lot and pretend that it says something about profligate spending. Castigate former New Jersey Gov. John Corzine for not cutting spending on education, and spin it into a hypothesis that schoolteachers (and let’s not forget the custodians) are controlling state coffers. Most important, don’t have a serious conversation with anyone who doesn’t already agree with you, because you might have to do some work.
Production values are adequate, unlike most of this film.